INTERVIEW: Jesica Yap – Indonesian-born music producer, pianist, teacher and composer for visual media
Written by Staff on 18 May 2022
Jesica Yap is an Indonesian-born composer for the visual media, a music producer, a pianist and a teacher residing in Los Angeles, California. On April 5th, Jesica won LIT Awards in total 16 awards categories. January 30, 2022, Jesica won the California Semifinals 1st place in Ensembles category playing piano duo with her sister for Music International Grand Prix under the name JJ Dua. On January 27, 2022 Jesica received two bronze medals from the well-known international competition, The Global Music Awards, for her song “Shine Your Light.” November 05, 2021, Jesica was nominated for HMMA (Hollywood in Media awards) in the New Age/ Ambient category for her piano composition titled “The Journey.” On September 16, 2021, Jesica received two bronze medals from the well-known international competition, The Global Music Awards, for her song “Six Feet Apart.” In 2019, she won her 2nd HMMA (Hollywood Music and Media Awards), and in 2018, she was nominated for a Jerry Goldsmith Awards and won her 1st HMMA.
About the song “Holding Strong”: There are times when I just wanted to scream out loud or just cry it out when life gets so hard. Times and moments like this help me to be creative. I usually journal my thoughts, my feelings and turn it into song(s). This is one of the journals from notes that turned into a song. This song talked about how hard it was to get back up when going through the rough times in life. Hope this song can resonate with you or accompany you in your toughest time. The good thing is feelings are all temporary. The story will not stop there. Do you want to meet that strong person in your life? Look in the mirror. Holding Strong… We’ll get through it all.
- Can you tell us a little bit how you got started making music and when you began to take it seriously?
I started as a classical pianist. My mom put me in piano lessons when I was five just like she did with all of my siblings. For the longest time though, I didn’t really know that you could make your own music. It wasn’t until I was 12 when I played at our local church that I started to write my own songs and started improving the existing church songs. The youth pastor at the time asked me to write the retreat song for the middle and high school (the church was connected to the school), which was sung by 100s of students, and it was the first song I ever wrote. Around age 14, I started writing songs for the youth church members, and it became an album. That was my very early music writing career.
When I was in 4th grade elementary school, the Internet was a new thing, and I played around on the computer and watched YouTube (which was also new), which is how I exposed myself to music on a much greater scale. Because classical music is more “set” and rigid, and I really wanted to do my own thing and create my own music, I kept studying and applying myself. At Berklee College of Music, I learned contemporary music, played in bands, and that snowballed into my learning how to write for visual media. In writing music today, I combine all the tools I’ve acquired over the years, and all the knowledge I’ve gained throughout my lifetime.
- Who were your first and strongest musical influences that you can remember?
My earliest musical influence was from my parents — I grew up in a musical household. Both my parents sang and played musical instruments. My mom learned how to play the accordion, and my dad played the guitar. My whole family plays the piano and guitar. Classical music had the greatest impact on my early years. I loved Chopin and Beethoven. After a while, I branched into lots of other genres of music. At one point in my life, I was very into Latin music. Grammy-winning Dominican pianist, Michel Camillo, does amazing work that very much inspired me. I have seen other pianists combining techno and piano – Maksim’s Flight of the Bumble-Bee is absolutely wonderful. I used to listen to church music, too. I love gospel and R&B (Stevie Wonder). Love old school R&B-pop such as Westlife, 98 Degrees, and Backstreet Boys. My musical taste buds expanded even further, and I really started enjoying film music from famous composers like John Powell, John Williams, Danny Elfman and Thomas Newman.
- How important has formal music training been for you, and do you think it still an essential tool for artists in the era of electronic and computer-aided music?
My formal music training was in classical music, which is very important to learn, because the more tools you have in life, the easier you will get by as a musical artist. The more you understand about music itself, the more tools you’ll have to work with. The computer is just there to enhance the skills you already have. It helps you to not be limited, but is it necessary for someone to be trained classically to make music? Not really. If you are making beats, you don’t really need it. It depends what kind of music you create. The more tools you have, the easier you can make an awesome electronic-classical-jazz piece, or whatever kind of music you want because you understand the theory really well. You don’t have to be an amazing pianist in the computer era because you can just record everything in; however, the more musical knowledge you have, the easier your life will be as a musician.
- What do you feel are the key elements in your music that should resonate with listeners?
The key element in my music that I believe resonates with my listeners is storytelling. I always strive to tell a story through my music and inspire people with the lyrics. I try to inspire and motivate people, and send positive vibes to my audience. For example, I don’t have to use swear words or harsh phrases. I can deliver a really strong message through different ways of saying things, and most of my songs’ messages are to not give up, and to keep going. Sometimes, you know, it’s hard to express things verbally, but maybe through the music you can feel it because there is a beat and a melody to it that you can sing along to.
- For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your development as an artist and music maker, and the transition towards your own style?
The saying is true – “good composers borrow, great composers steal.” Everything in the world has already been done before. And like the piano, you have 12 keys — 7 white, 5 black. It’s already been done before, right? We just use the same keys, same notes, same pitch, same melodies, but we re-arrange them in different ways. It’s not just about the note, it’s also the rhythm, texture, and speaking from a music producer’s perspective, it’s how you layer these things and how you want the music to respond to the lyrics or the singing. Or if it’s just instrumental, it’s all based on the storyline. Everyone has their own style in delivering and writing music. For me, it’s just a melting pot in my head from what I learned from classical training and playing contemporary music in bands, to learning different kinds of music genres in my college years, to my collaborative experiences with other artists or film directors, and other music producer friends. Or when I listen to music, I might like a certain part of it, like the instrument they’re using, and then in other music I might like the beat, the vibe, the progression or change, and I use those. My own transition has been through that process. Speaking about development as a song-writer/artist, it’s the same with how I learned to write film music. English is not my first language, so what I did was read a lot of lyrics, and I can only hope that my next song is better than my previous. I also explore and work on my own style — I can go from being a classical pianist to composing orchestral music, to creating my own pop music, light pop, R&B-pop, ballad pop, low-fi pop, and such. That’s the greatest thing about being an indie musician — you get to explore your own style of music without anyone having to tell you that you have to make a specific style of music for your whole album. That’s also my learning curve, and I challenge myself all the time to create different styles of music. As much as I can, I like to incorporate piano in my music; in an appropriate place where it fits the style.
- What is your view on the role and function of music as political, cultural, spiritual, and/or social vehicles – and do you affront any of these themes in your work, or are you purely interested in music as an expression of technical artistry, personal narrative and entertainment?
Politics? I don’t have a vehicle on that. It’s not my forte to talk about politics, and I always worry I might say something “wrong.” As far as cultural, yes, I have worked with a lot of native Indonesian instrumentalists for a short film. And for my music itself, spiritually, I have worked on a Christian album for the church where I grew up. Social vehicle? Yes. That’s what I write the most — inspiring music. Or even funny or comedic music. I wrote a song during Covid, “Six Feet Apart,” which is a social/experimental song about socializing or dating during Covid, and how we’re going to meet when all of this craziness is over. My other song, “Together,” touches on togetherness and friendship during difficult times and great times. And that we’re all in it together – through the darkest and the happiest moments. My other song, “Shine your Light” is about shining your light even though you feel like you’re constantly chasing after something, and are always behind; wishing you could catch up with a lot of things in your life, and taking one step at a time, and keep going forward and shining your light and doing the best you can.
My Christmas song, “Happier This Christmas,” is about being happier no matter what happened in the past or throughout the year. Even if you had a really bad year, you still have a chance of making things better. Another song that I released, “Holding Strong,” is one that I hope will strengthen people during rough times. A lot of people struggle mentally, or are going through tough times, and I’m hoping this song will give them strength, and keep them company during times of hardship. The songs I’ve written in the last few years all have a strong and positive social message for my fans. The music is a part of an expression of me, and how I want to sing it. I like to experiment with the way I sing, and how I deliver a story to my audience. For example, in “Holding Strong” I have this breathy, airy voice; sort of a hopeless voice in the beginning, and then it turns into a powerful, strong voice. I hope it’s an empowering narrative while also being entertaining. It’s a combination.
- Could you describe your creative processes? How do you most often start, and go about shaping ideas into a song? Do you usually start with a beat, a narrative in your head, or a melody?
It can be any of those. It depends what type of music I’m writing. If it’s for visual media, I usually want to know the story by either looking at the synopsis or looking at the picture or video first, or chatting about it with the director or producer. And then, from there, an idea would spark. If I’m doing songwriting, it might be the melody that comes first, or the chord changes first, or the lyrics first. Sometimes I only have one word or a phrase. For example, I came up with “Six Feet Apart” and built the idea for a song around that phrase. I like to work from a hook first. But sometimes I’m just playing on the piano and find a nice verse, and it keeps growing and building from there. And other times I might be driving around town and an idea pops into my head out of nowhere. It can be just me humming a melody, which I would then record on my phone. Most of the time I record ideas on my phone first — either a melody and the lyrics — then I start working on it on my computer. I usually start with a piano sketch. If I’m writing a piano instrumental and start doodling, it will most often just show up out of thin air.
- As far as recording the instrumentals in your music are concerned, do you collaborate with other musicians and producers to achieve your sound?
Yes. I like to collaborate with other musicians and producers because most of the time I’ll have the ideas and my vision on what I want to do and what kind of sounds I want to do. Sometimes I just do it first and pass it onto others (a musical team, for example), and then they can keep going with it. I like that kind of a process because it gives a fresh perspective on a song. I like to outsource sometimes because it frees up my time and it allows me to work on other things.
- What has been the most difficult thing you have had to endure in your musical career, or life, so far? And how did you overcome that event?
Well, musicians are often over-looked, unfortunately. Whatever service you offer, most people try to get you for free, not realizing that musicians need lots of training (and tools) to create something special. I can only speak for myself. I didn’t only get my knowledge from a 4-year degree. I started my musical journey when I was seven. A lot of times people undervalue the work of a musician as a career, and it’s a very hard thing to accept and digest. A lot of music internships are unpaid. I don’t know if it’s common in other industries as well, but to work for free in a new country and a new city fresh out of college, and to try to pay rent and pay your bills while trying to pursue your dream, is very difficult. How did I overcome this? Well, I opened my eyes wide and grabbed any opportunities that I could — anything as long as it was in music. Being open minded and trying out different kind of things, and having a strong support system overall is paramount to a young musician’s survival. It’s also super important to not be afraid to value yourself and your worth.
- On the contrary, what would you consider a successful, proud or significant point in your life or career so far?
I’m very grateful for everything since I graduated and worked professionally in this industry in Los Angeles. I mean, I’ve been working and teaching music since I was in middle and high school, but in my career (and life), the highlight has been my move to LA in 2014. But perhaps the proudest moment was in 2018 when I received my first award from HMMA, and my being in the room with so many people whom I’ve always looked up to and who have greatly inspired me. Just feeling that moment of recognition was amazing! Then fast forward to this year, and I never imagined being at this point in my career. The universe is showing me that things are happening as long as I keep working and keep grinding and doing my best. Life can surprise you with many gifts, and often it does.
- With social media having a heavy impact on our lives and the music business in general, how do you handle criticism, haters and/or naysayers in general? Is it something you pay attention to, or simply ignore?
So far people have been mostly supportive. I think there are way more supportive people than naysayers; however, everyone is entitled to saying whatever they want, and it shouldn’t stop you from releasing your song. You can do whatever your heart desires. Personally, I create positive, uplifting songs that are meant to empower and help people around me and the world. I try to do good things for this world. I don’t really pay attention to negativity. So far, knock on wood, I haven’t had naysayers to contend with. Maybe one day something might get to me, but I will keep doing what my heart desires, and they can say whatever they want to say because they have the right to free speech, and I have the right to create art.
- Putting aside any accolades or criticisms that fans, the industry, or the media may afford your persona or music, is there anything about you or your music, you think people may overlook, underestimate or misunderstand at all?
So far, I think my music has been received really well. I feel like if my music can be heard by more people, it would spread more positivity, but there are always going to be percentages of good and bad comments. We all know that you simply can’t please everyone. As far as what people underestimate or misunderstand about me, I don’t know. My songs are not controversial, and they don’t tackle any delicate or “forbidden” subjects that can be misconstrued or misunderstood. They are pretty straight-forward and gentle. I don’t think they will stir up anything on social media. As far as what’s been overlooked in my music, I really can’t say because the comments and the reception to my songs have been mostly positive. I think people understand that my music is intended to uplift and make everyone feel good.
- You have won multiple awards and received many nominations. Is there a particular accolade you are most proud of among them, and why?
I am really proud of each and every one of my awards. They are all very special. The first one, in 2018, was special because it’s like your first baby. That was probably what it felt like. It was the start of my career and super memorable for me. I’m just very glad for each, and I’m glad I have this recognition for all my hard work. I haven’t figured out a lot of things yet about my industry, but I want to strive to keep creating more, and there are still more things that I want to see. It’s like, these awards gave me a boost of confidence, and they kind of gave me this power and encouragement like I can do anything. You know, if I keep creating, there are so many things in myself that I will be able to unlock, and one day I’ll be like, I’m here! How I picture it is like, I’m going to keep climbing and climbing until I arrive at the stopping point and see this very beautiful scenery from above, and you never know, maybe the higher I go, the more things I discover below, like a beautiful lake that I’ve never noticed before. Or some giant tree, or a spectacular plant that I’ve never noticed before until I stood on the tallest peak. And when I go to the other side of it, I will say, oh wow, this is a breathtaking view, and suddenly there is a magnificent resting place that I’ve never seen before. If I were to imagine a scenario or a picture, that metaphor is what would apply to my career, and I really look forward to experiencing this one day.
- Could you describe your overall sound and style using five adjectives?
Inspiring Motivating, Welcoming, Playful, Comforting.
- Could you tell us something about the making of your latest project and the message behind it?
There are times when I just want to scream out loud or just cry out when life gets hard. Times and moments like that help me to be creative. I usually journal my thoughts and feelings and turn them into a song(s). This is one of the songs I scribbled in my notes. This song talks about how hard it was to get back up when going through rough times in life. Hope this song can resonate with you or accompany you in your toughest times. The good thing is, unwanted or negative feelings are only temporary. Your story will not stop there. Do you want to meet that strong person in your life? Look in the mirror. “Holding Strong.” We’ll get through this all.
- Do you have a favorite motto, phrase or piece of advice, you try to live or inspire yourself by?
I do. I have it in my bathroom. My friend gave me this frame for my birthday and it has letters that you can use to arrange to whatever you want to say. And I arranged, “dare to dream, dare to act.” That’s what I see every day in my bathroom, and it reminds me that if you can dream it, you can do it. Don’t just dream it, act on it. And that’s the motto I have been living by. Another motto is: “I only live once and I want to make the best out of it.” I want to make the very best of my life without wasting every second of my life, and when I’m old, or when I’m no longer in this world, I want to make sure that I don’t regret not having lived my best life.
- Studio work and songwriting, or performing and interacting with a live audience, which do you prefer, and why?
I’m actually a very shy person. I don’t even know how to describe myself because it’s a mixed bag — I like to socialize, and I also like to be alone. I find a lot of my inspiration and my Zen moments when I’m alone in nature or at home. I just like to imagine myself in a wide space, which is me in my happiest space — in a quiet, open space. That is where I am the most “me” and most productive, and have the brain capacity to be endlessly creative. I like to think and plan and create and imagine, and that space allows me to do all of those things. This doesn’t mean that I don’t get inspired when I’m around people. I do, and I like to be social too, but generally speaking, I am equal parts outgoing and shy.
I love doing studio work and song writing, but I also perform time to time, but I enjoy studio work and song writing more because I can be in my Zen place and my comfort place, and be myself, like not have to wear makeup, or just hang out in my PJs or sweats, and just be chill and casual. That’s where I’m most comfortable. From time to time, I will perform, and I will still challenge myself, but sometimes when I come home, I just want to relax. I want to create my music and hope to license it to media (film, TV, etc.) one day. That would make me very happy! But I don’t say no to an opportunity to perform my originals and covers as an artist, and someday I might even want to perform, but as of right now, I enjoy studio work and song writing the most.
- What’s the most exciting part of being an independent music artist for you, and which is the part you like least?
The most exciting part is that I can do whatever I want. I can create whatever I want without people telling me what to do or what they want, or what it should be or sound like. I can express myself freely, and I can change things on my own because I produce my own music and music videos, and only do what I desire to do creatively. I can craft my music just like a painter paints a painting or a sculptor sculpts a sculpture. I have much flexibility and independence to do so because I am an independent artist. My least favorite part about being an independent artist is getting my music out there, having to promote myself and my work, and constantly working the business side, and waiting to see what’s coming in. The least fun part is having to spend a lot of time and money on it without getting the return back immediately. Because I don’t perform as much or go on tours, there isn’t that immediate financial gratification. I hope that one day all this hard work can be recognized and valued. I’m always honing my craft and trying to do my best.
- How essential do you think video is in relation to your music? Do you have a favorite visual you could suggest fans see, to get a better understanding of your persona and craft?
I’m a very visual person, and very animated (as many friends tell me), and I love creating music videos because it helps the audience see more and feel more. It’s like a form of story. It’s like when you’re seeing a movie versus when you’re listening to the radio. I always wish to see facial expressions when I’m listening to a song. I love anything with pictures or graphics. I love to translate my imagination into images, because when I’m writing music, I always create a picture in my head that I have to put out for my audiences to see.
Yes, I have a few music videos that you can see, for example, “Holding Strong,” “Happier this Christmas” and “Six feet Apart.” They are all very different in a way. “Six Feet Apart” is a very fun, comedic, romantic, funny and quirky type of visual media. “Happier This Christmas” has a cozy and cute vibe. It’s happy and fun, and is all about Christmas. “Holding Strong” is so far the most elaborate – it has dramatic changes with a lot of different facial expressions. In one scene, I had to kind of say “help me,” but really like asking for help, but the director was telling me, “Jesica, can you not smile,” and I was like, “I’m sorry,” ‘cause I don’t know, I’m so used to smiling and it’s hard for me to channel my seriousness. Could be my coping mechanism, I don’t know. I just smile a lot. No matter what I try to do, I just smile. When I had to shoot this scene where I needed to be sad and people were watching me, I had to challenge myself and dig deep to find my inner seriousness, because my default is to always smile.
- What do you find most rewarding about what you do artistically? And do you have a specific vision or goal set in your mind that you would like to achieve in the near future?
Most rewarding thing about what I do artistically is when I can write my song and pour my heart out. Basically, I like to be creative and I like to realize my vision. To see it come to life is my biggest satisfaction because that also gives me a lot of flexibility artistically to challenge myself, and most of the time I just surprise myself with what I’m able to achieve and accomplish, and that is the most rewarding thing for me – the whole process of converting everything that is in my brain, and seeing it come to life and become a reality. No longer an imagination, but reality!
My goal is to keep writing and making more songs and getting paid, and hopefully getting more recognition. I would like to go for a Grammy. Awards are always great — they are the byproduct of what I create. If I can challenge myself to do new things that I haven’t done before, and learn new skills along the way, that is what I’d love to do. That is my goal and my vision, and to have more people listen to my music and hope that it will resonate with them, and I just want to keep creating and keep collaborating with more and more people. Where I am in this point of my life is beyond what I ever imagined, but I also have the goal and vision to attain my dreams. I try to do my best, and I would like to envision having my own place and my own studio and making music full time… and repeating the whole process again, and collaborating with more people. People who share the same values and goals, and with whom I enjoy working, and having them on my team, and to be able to make more money, and for the song to be recognized in visual media – in either in film, TV, games, or commercials, etc. And if along the way my song can help just one person, I would be endlessly happy.